How to judge the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the second north-south civil war in Sudan, one of the bloodiest and longest on the African continent? In short, the CPA is a decent agreement that suffers from lack of implementation.

To be sure, the agreement has brought peace and relative stability to the war ravaged south. Southerners have started working on post-war reconstruction, reconciliation, and development. When compared to the 1972 peace agreement that brought an end the first north-south war, the CPA—at least on paper—has far better chances of success. After the 1972 peace deal was signed, lack of real autonomy and dependence on Khartoum’s “donations” only prolonged the marginalization of the south in political, social, and economic terms. These were some of the main causes of instability in South Sudan in the 1970s and the new round of fighting that began in 1983. Today, the CPA has given significant constitutional guarantees and the right of self-determination to South Sudan. And today, the south has real autonomy and substantial funds to function independently from the central government in Khartoum.

Nonetheless, apart from not being a comprehensive agreement at all, but a bilateral deal between the two strongest groups in Sudan, the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the main problem with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has been lack of implementation.

Lack of Implementation

Many key issues specified in the CPA have not been resolved, such as the population census and disputes over the north-south border. The agreement also called for the removal of strict security laws introduced after the 1989 coup, which has been slow in coming. The reform of these laws would improve the general human rights situation in the country and prepare the ground for free, fair, and credible elections. In December 2009, the ruling NCP, however, gave Sudan’s intelligence and security services the same wide-ranging search, arrest, and seizure powers they held before. Unfortunately, the only substantial change in the new law is shorter amount of time suspects can be held in detention.

When the CPA was signed, its key hopes were peace, stability, and development across the country, fundamental change and reform in Khartoum, and “making unity attractive” to southerners. Hardly any of this has happened in the interim period. While many sides are to blame, including the international community, which for some time completely ignored CPA implementation, Khartoum bears most of the responsibility. For example, the regime’s continued “business-as-usual” in Darfur, which has caused horrific human suffering in this Sudanese province, shows that the NCP is not ready to reform and change its discriminatory and oppressive policies towards Sudanese peripheries.

Young People

Young people comprise the majority of the Sudanese population. If given a chance, they could be catalysts for a better and brighter future. To be able to contribute to Sudanese transformation, young people need to have freedom of expression, speech, association, and assembly. However, they, together with other opposition and civil society groups in Sudan (especially in the north), live in a society where strict laws have blatantly undermined their basic freedoms for decades, and continue to do so to this day.

Yet the ruling elite in Sudan does not seem ready for any reform and change. This includes giving a chance to younger Sudanese to have a significant say in how their country is run. Young Sudanese are currently limited in what they can do to accelerate the process of peace building and democratization without putting their safety and even lives at risk.

Nevertheless, young people in Sudan cannot give up. Their power is in their numbers and they are the future of the country. Despite being as powerful and ruthless as the current regime, one should note that two previous military dictatorships were toppled by ordinary Sudanese in peaceful protests, with young people at the forefront.


When the CPA was signed in January 2005, the elections were planned to take place in 2008 or no later than July 2009. That would give the people in Sudan between two and three years to experience life under some form of representative and democratic rule. With the elections now scheduled for April 2010, almost at the end of the CPA interim period and less than a year before the southern referendum on self-determination, one must ask whether the complex and expensive elections are necessary at all. If Sudan proceeds with the elections, can they be free, fair, and credible?

After they have marginalized and terrorized the majority of Sudanese for two decades, it is unlikely they will now have a large following in the country. But Omar al-Bashir and his party are expected to do anything to stay in power. They control all spheres of life in the north—the government, police, intelligence services, army, paramilitary forces, as well as state television and radio, and business and financial institutions.

Opposition parties and local and international observers have already alleged widespread fraud, vote buying, and forged papers during the registration for the elections. Sudan’s strict media and security laws have also, in many instances, undermined freedom of speech and assembly during the campaigning by the opposition parties.

Darfur and South Sudan

In Darfur, large numbers of internally displaced people (IDP) refused to be counted in the disputed 2008 census, or to register for the elections in their current places of residence, many out of fear that they would then lose claim to their previous homes. Sudan’s Election Act does not make any specific provisions for voting by some five million IDPs in their places of origin, more than half of whom are from Darfur. Furthermore, due to security concerns, those in Darfur who have registered will probably not be able to participate in the elections.

South Sudan is also facing immense problems related to the elections. It is very likely that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a former rebel movement still in the process of transforming itself into a political party, will try to sideline other parties in the South. It is also possible that the SPLM will use the resources of the government of South Sudan—where it controls 70 percent of the institutions—for election campaigning, thus putting other political parties at a disadvantage. Other major problems in the south are lack of security in many areas, poor transportation and communication infrastructure, and very limited voter education among the population, most of which is illiterate and will be voting for the first time ever in April.

Complicated Elections

Security, freedom of speech and assembly, and potential for vote rigging are not the only issues threatening the credibility of the elections. April elections are considered the most complicated in Sudan’s history. Sudanese will be voting for the president of Sudan, National Assembly, president of the government of Southern Sudan, Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly, and governors and assemblies for the 25 states in Sudan. In the north, voters will have to cast eight separate ballots. In South Sudan, where the literacy rate is around 25 percent, voters will have to cast 12 separate ballots.

The election administration will have to print and accurately distribute 1,268 different types of ballots to electoral districts around the country. Most parts of Sudan, the largest country in Africa, are not easy to reach and only have limited access to electricity and communications.

Furthermore, given the large number of ballots and possible complaints by the parties, post-election counting of the votes could take a month or more. During this time, Sudan could face numerous claims of vote rigging, protests, and violence.

Way Forward

As noted in the beginning, the CPA is a decent agreement that suffers from lack of implementation, with the elections acting as the prime example. Under the CPA, Sudanese elections were planned for 2008 or no later than July 2009. Slow implementation of the peace agreement has pushed the national elections to April of this year.

If the elections proceed as planned, the African Union and the wider international community must take serious interest and send an army of election observers. The observers should not arrive in Sudan only for the elections, but they need to observe the campaigning process, ensure fair access to the state media by all political parties, transparency of the electoral process, and freedom of speech and assembly.

As stipulated in the CPA, the elections were intended to give a chance to Sudanese, for the first time since 1986, to freely choose their representatives. Elected officials would then work on making unity of the country attractive to the southerners who will vote in the self-determination referendum in January 2011 on whether to remain in a united Sudan, or to form an independent country.

With the elections occurring almost at the end of the CPA interim period, and less than a year before the southern referendum, the electoral process should be postponed until after the 2011 referendum, or simplified and held at this time only for executive positions—president of Sudan, president of South Sudan, and state governors.

The elections, as currently planned, would be a logistical nightmare for any country, let alone Sudan, leaving too much room for post-election manipulation of votes and violence. In the present situation, with so many issues specified in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement unresolved, lack of basic freedoms, and insecurity in many areas, Sudanese national elections would not lead to pluralism and democracy, but rather to instability and post-election chaos.

April 6, 2010


A lot has happened in Sudan since this article was written. President Bashir has publicly promised to “cut the throat” of anyone who claims that the elections in Sudan will not be fair and free. At the same time, Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, naively expressed confidence that the elections will be free, fair, and credible, despite all the problems and objections by Sudanese opposition parties, much of civil society, NGOs, and international observers.

The southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has recently decided to boycott the presidential elections as well as the elections in Darfur and much of the north of Sudan, claiming that the whole process had already been rigged by the ruling NCP. The SPLM will still contest the elections in South Sudan. Even though the southerners don’t really give too much importance to the upcoming elections, they see them as an important milestone to get to the 2011 referendum, perhaps the most important moment in the history of South Sudan.

On April 11, the Umma party, the largest northern opposition party, also decided to boycott the elections at all levels. It is understandable that the SPLM and many northern opposition parties are going for the partial or full boycott as they can see that there can be neither free and fair campaigning, nor elections at this point in Sudan.

Savo Heleta works on the South Sudan Executive Leadership Program. He is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa as well as the author of Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia (AMACOM Books, 2008).

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